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Pesto is a must-have in any kitchen. Also called pesto alla genovese, this fresh flavorful sauce is incredibly tasty on pasta, salads, sandwiches, meat, and fish, and its gorgeous green color doesn't hurt. Whether you're a lifetime lover of this basil-based topping or you're ready to try it for the first time, whip up a batch of this sauce to discover how easy and delicious it can be.

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Fresh basil

The main ingredient in your pesto recipe is fresh basil. This minty herb creates that signature green color and delivers a burst of intense flavor that melds perfectly with the rest of the ingredients. If you have basil plants in your home garden, take some leaves from there; otherwise, head to the store and pick up a pack of fresh, healthy-looking basil. This ingredient sets the foundation for some successful pesto production and plenty of appetizing meals for the whole family.

basil plants for sale David Silverman / Getty Images
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Garlic and olive oil

No good pesto recipe is complete without garlic and olive oil. The aromatic garlic blends perfectly with the basil, while extra-virgin olive oil gives it the perfect consistency and spread. Lemon juice mixes in nicely with these ingredients to take your pesto to the next level and add a zing to your dish.

garlic Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
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Pine nuts

Pine nuts add the perfect crunch to pesto, but they are on the more expensive side. These nuts are high in fat and super tender for a buttery, silky pesto, but you can achieve similar results with cheaper varieties, too. Try raw pecans, almonds, walnuts, or pepitas. The most neutral choice is almonds, but toasting them delivers a lovely, sweet flavor.

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Balancing the ingredients

Combining these core ingredients gives you gorgeous pesto ideal for a wide range of dishes. To yield one cup of pesto, suitable for about 12 ounces of pasta, you will need two cups of packed basil leaves — usually about two big bunches. You should also use two chopped cloves of garlic (adjusted to your taste), 1/3 cup of raw nuts, 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese, and 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil. A tablespoon of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt is the perfect touch.

Toast nuts and seeds

While this is optional, toasting your nuts will give the pesto more flavor. Heat them in a skillet and keep them moving so they don't burn. Within five minutes, the nuts should be wonderfully fragrant and lightly browned, which is how you know they're done. Let them cool for a few minutes before adding them to the pesto.

Combine ingredients

Though it is possible to crush basil by hand, this takes a lot of effort. You'll get the best and quickest results for your pesto by using a food processor or blender. All all the ingredients except the olive oil to the drum. Once you have the machine going, gently drizzle the extra-virgin olive oil while the blades continue to turn, mixing until everything is well-blended. You want to find the right balance of texture and thickness.

Add extra flavors

Pesto is pretty hard to do wrong. It doesn't take much to deliver a shock of fresh flavor, and it's easy to adjust the ingredients to suit your palate once you've blended everything together. If the basil has a bitter taste, try a pinch of salt. More olive oil will thin out the pesto, and extra cheese will make sharper and creamier.

Store in the fridge or freezer

While pesto is always going to taste great taken directly from the food processor to the pasta, it does last for up to a week in the fridge. Extend the life of your sauce even further by freezing portions in an ice cube tray. Once it's frozen, move the cubes to a freezer bag or contain for portioned sauce on the go!

Toss with pasta

Pesto is a popular choice with penne or fettuccine pasta, but it will suit almost any type you choose. One great pesto pasta trick is to save a cup of the cooking water before you drain your noodles. This water has ideal starch levels to make the pesto stick to the pasta. Toss the pasta, pesto, and a bit of cooking water until you reach the perfect balance, then plate it up and wow your family or guests with a fresh, delicious meal.

Dairy and nut-free alternatives

Pesto is terrific because you can easily change it up for various dietary requirements. Pick up a plant-based variety of Parmesan "cheese," for your vegan friends, or replace the cheese with a tablespoon of nutritional yeast. For a nut-free pesto, use traditional pine nuts, which are technically seeds. Pepitas and sunflower seeds work well too. The simply mixing method of pesto means you can even make multiple varieties for one meal. Just leave out the problematic ingredient, then divide the pesto into one or more batches before finishing!

pesto Joe Kohen / Getty Images

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